Christians have long been captivated by the idea of mission work. As long as it’s considered exotic, courageous, and of urgent importance, we are quick to give funds to the short-term mission trip or sign up for a trip overseas ourselves, convinced such opportunities to “do the Lord’s work” are few and far between. We idolize the humanitarian photographer; we praise the radical servant who gives everything up to live in the inner-city. Regardless of whether we ourselves make such commitments, there is an unspoken assumption within most Christian bodies that “good works” occur in extraordinary circumstances, not within the normalcy of everyday living.
Martin Luther observed a similar belief in the 1500s. While the majority of people worked as farmers, shopkeepers, mothers, and fathers, only work done by clergy members was deemed holy. The people “called by God,” therefore, were those who worked within the church. Luther taught instead that each of us has a vocation (literally “calling” in Latin), and that it’s not the type of work that makes it good, but rather God’s presence within the work. Furthermore, it’s not our efforts but God’s work through us that makes work good or vocation holy.
1 Corinthians tells us, “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him” (7:17). While God assigns some of us lives filled with adventure and extraordinary circumstances, the fact remains that many of us lead quiet and uneventful lives.
Normal work became something the Christian in Luther’s day could look to and trust that God was at work in, whether they realized it or not. I can only imagine what affects a similar change in heart could do for the Christian today—both for our assuredness in Christ’s righteousness as well as for the benefit of our neighbor.
Before we go any further, I want to make it clear that big, courageous work is a very good thing. I’m not arguing for less evangelism or humanitarian work. I am arguing for a more holistic view of work in general. If we understand and trust that God works through us even when we can’t see or measure it, we might do whatever is in front of us with a little more peace, a little more excellence, and a little less discontent.
Here are a few benefits found in Luther’s doctrine of vocation that I believe can help move us in the right direction, and provide us all—whether we work a 9-5 or live in rural Botswana—with the good news that despite our failures, our insecurities and our sin, God will always be at work.
God does not need our good works, but our neighbor does (and even our neighbor needs pizza)
The purpose of vocation is to serve our neighbor, and while you would be hard pressed to find a Christian today who would not agree with you, a funny thing happens when we elevate certain callings above others. For years, I found myself stuck in some sort of existential anxiety that “normalcy” was a mark of someone who was disobedient to their true calling. I was constantly hustling to prove my work as good and holy, and in doing so, my neighbor became an afterthought (if a thought at all).
I was living the scene in Mean Girls in which Lindsay Lohan can’t stop staring at herself in the mirror while she goes on and on about Regina George; I could talk circles around you about serving the poor, confronting social injustices, and solving huge humanitarian issues, all the while my gaze remained fixed on my own reflection.
We can be certain that because of Christ, we will bear good works, and most of the time, this process is much more organic than we realize. It’s when we try to count and measure our progress that our focus turns from serving our neighbor to serving ourselves. While we will always be dissatisfied in our works because they will always be less than perfect, we can trust that, in Christ, they are cloaked in righteousness.
“The Christian who is consecrated by faith does good works, but these do not make him holier or more Christian. This is accomplished by faith alone,” says Luther.
Through faith in Christ alone both big and little things, seen and unseen, become good for our neighbor. Regardless of whether we deliver pizza for a living, teach second grade, or run a Fortune 500 company, we are each modern reformers in whom God works.
“For years, I found myself stuck in some sort of existential anxiety that “normalcy” was a mark of someone who was disobedient to their true calling. I was constantly hustling to prove my work as good and holy, and in doing so, my neighbor became an afterthought (if a thought at all).”
God works in us despite us
No matter how pure our intentions, we will inevitably sin in our given vocations. The humanitarian can tout his or her microfinance accomplishments during an interview for a major magazine. Yet God can still use the article to teach readers about microloans and inspire them to give to organizations supporting such endeavors. The mother can begrudge giving up her freedom in order to spend all day with her toddler, and yet the toddler can grow up secure in his mother’s love.
This understanding does not imply we should disregard sin or apathy within our work. Instead, it moves the emphasis from what we do to what God is doing through us. In turn, we can take credit for mistakes and failures rather than making excuses for them, because we trust that Christ makes all things new! He deserves praise for our success and blessings while he simultaneously forgives and forgets our wrongdoings.
Vocations are gifts from God to every believer
“Now I need nothing except faith that it is true,” Luther says. “Given such a Father—who overwhelms me with riches beyond number—why should I not freely, joyfully with all my heart and an eager will, do things that I know are pleasing and acceptable to him?”
Both believers and unbelievers are given the task of work. Yet it is the believer who understands that work is a gift because, thanks to Christ, it can be undertaken free from obligation. Daily chores, difficult challenges, and the frequent misstep have no bearing on our worth, and it’s exactly because of this that we can work freely at whatever is laid in front of us. When we view our vocations as gifts from God, we receive contentment knowing we are exactly where we need to be and that the same is true for others!
We don’t have to clamber to get in front anyone. Instead, we can support each other through what we do best. Think of the freedom and encouragement this type of mentality could offer missionaries, for instance. Rather than being burdened to frequently plan large donor groups and balance their time between the people they work with and the people who support them, what if those of us who fulfilled the vocation of supporting, encouraging, and praying for missionaries trusted they would do their jobs with excellence? Understanding that a visit overseas (while educating and sometimes greatly beneficial) played no part in our holiness or faithfulness? What if we had the humility to direct our funds to the pressing yet often undervalued administration costs, even if it meant foregoing a child’s photograph on our fridge?
Christ did truly give himself to us, and as a result we are free—free to recognize every type of work and every type of vocation as a gift meant for our good and the good of our neighbor. So whether you have 100 diapers to change today or 50 students to teach, be assured that in spite of you, your work is beautiful because God makes it so.